March Fishing on the Paradise Valley Spring Creeks
While the late June and July PMD fishing gets most of the love, to say nothing of bookings 18 months or more in advance, I actually prefer the spring fishing. The fish are coming off a long winter in which they saw far less pressure than they do in the summer and early fall, there’s lot of “country cousin” rainbows that run in from the Yellowstone to spawn, and the mayflies are starting to get active with warming weather and water. Mid-March is prime time.
The Four Keys in Mid-March: Relatively Stupid Fish, Increased Fish Numbers, Spawning Activity and the Food It Provides, and Early Hatches
Angling pressure begins to rise in March, since the weather at valley level can often be quite comfortable at this time, but the overall pressure through the winter is low. This means that the resident trout in the spring creeks are not quite so intelligent at this time as they are in the summer, when the creeks are fully booked most days. This helps mean the trout can be caught on flies that aren’t quite so tiny and precise.
Even more important in making mid-March a good time on the creeks is the heavy run of spring-spawning rainbows that enter the creeks at this time. Trout begin entering in January or February, but the numbers are highest from mid-March through early April. Many of the fish are not yet spawning in March, which makes them more available than they are in April, since it’s not ethical to target actively spawning trout. It’s fine to do so when they’re still in the pre-spawn stage in deeper water, however.
These fish are important not only in cranking up the fish populations in the streams, but in providing food both for resident trout and the other running trout. They do this in two ways. The first and most obvious is in egg production. Eggs that drift helplessly in the current are not viable (they must be safely buried under fine gravel to hatch) and are as complete and easy a meal as a trout can find. There’s a reason fishing in Alaska is centered on eggs. It doesn’t quite center on eggs on the creeks in March, but they are important. In addition to these failed products of the spawn themselves, prey items stirred up and swept into the drift makes for easy prey for trout clustered downstream. These prey items include all of the bugs and critters that live in the creeks, but center on the items most active in spring: Baetis (BWO) mayfly nymphs, midge larvae and pupae, and aquatic worms.
While some combination of egg patterns, BWO nymphs, subsurface midges, and aquatic (skinny San Juan) worms will produce the biggest numbers of fish, mid-March can also produce excellent dry fly fishing during the year’s first consistent hatches. Midge hatches can occur even in the dead of winter, but they are fragmentary and don’t pop every day. By mid-March, these midge hatches intensify and are joined by consistent Blue-winged Olive emergences. While the clockwork hatches of early summer are seldom found in March, if you hunt for them you can find rising fish most days in March. The hatches will be best on calm days with at least some cloud cover, particularly when temperatures are in the 40s-50s. Look for days at the tail end of warm spells, just as a front starts to roll in. Your enemy here will be wind, but during calm spells expect to see some noses.
Tactics for Mid-March
I’ve mentioned many of the prey items it’s important to match in mid-March above. Here is how you should aim to fish these bugs.
Focus your efforts on the deeper runs and pools downstream either of shallow riffles (where the spawning activity will be taking place) or downstream of migration barriers such as culverts or the small dam on the pond at Depuy Spring Creek. Even shallow riffles can serve as migration barriers, since fish that aren’t yet in the throes of passion will be hesitant to swim through such areas on their migrations (due to exposure to predators) during daylight hours.
Nymphing is the primary tactic in these areas. Combine a pair of the food items noted above. If downstream of spawning fish, I’ll certainly use an egg first. If downstream of rough or turbulent water such as a culvert, I’ll probably opt for a slender San Juan Worm with a mayfly or midge, at least for starters. Both indicator and Euro-style nymphing tactics can work in these areas. The smaller the target, the more likely I’ll pull off the indicator and try to stay in contact with my nymphs. Make sure you are using enough weight that your flies are ticking bottom. Both weighted flies and weight added to your leader will work fine. With nymphs, cover the water thoroughly and slowly. I like to move fast when I fish, but when nymphing the spring creeks I’ll often stick to one run for an hour or more.
A secondary tactic is streamer fishing. Fish a medium-sized Woolly Bugger or other generic streamer. Use either a heavily weighted fly and a normal leader or a lightly weighted fly and a medium-sink Polyleader. There’s no need for an aggressive sinking line on the spring creeks.
Always keep an eye out for rising fish, especially from about noon until 3:00. The best chances for hatches will be in the walking-speed slicks running about waist-deep, the sorts of areas that are too deep and perhaps slow for spawning activity but shallower than the best nymphing runs. Don’t bother fishing dry flies unless you see fish rising.
Note on Actively Spawning Fish and Redds
DO NOT FISH FOR ACTIVELY SPAWNING TROUT!!! These fish will be found in water less than about two feet deep, primarily over gravel bottoms that the trout have “cleaned” of silt and algae using tail and body motions. These areas, spawning nests known as redds, will look paler than other areas, and will often feature dish-shaped depressions ranging in size from a garbage can lid on up to a large dining room table. Often multiple redds are packed next to one another.
Active spawners on redds will often be easily visible and look to be chasing one another. They are often large, and so tempting targets for many anglers. Don’t do it. Every trout in the Paradise Valley spring creeks is wild, and fishing for them while they’re doing the deed both disturbs their spawning activity (how would you react if disturbed while YOU were “spawning?”) and can potentially kill eggs, for example if you wade through unnoticed redds to get in position to cast to spawning trout.
Really it’s best to avoid spawning areas entirely. Often the creeks flag off the most important spawning areas to close them during the spawn, but any area of shallow gravel with a steady current is a potential spawning area. These sorts of spots often offer great dry fly fishing in midsummer. The only reason trout might be in them in March is to spawn. Let them do it. As noted above
Tackle for Mid-March
- Rod: 9′ five-weights are the bread and butter stick at this time, because they are suitable for any likely tactic.
- Reel: Use your basic trout reel. No need for anything fancy on the creeks, because the fish seldom run long distances.
- Line: DT or WF to match your rod. While summer dry fly fishing is easiest with a line marketed as “precision” or “delicate,” such specialization is unnecessary at this time.
- Leader: When fishing dries and nymphs, I almost always start with a 9′ 4X leader at this time, though I’ll often add 18″ of tippet to a standard leader for more delicacy and a faster sink rate with nymphs. If using streamers, go with either a 9′ 3X leader or a Polyleader with 3X tippet.
- Tippet: 4X can sometimes cut it with nymphs on the creeks in the spring, but 5X and 6X are typically more useful for nymphs and especially for dries. 3X is fine with streamers. I always use fluorocarbon tippets (though standard nylon base leaders) on the creeks.
- Accessories: Light split shot (#4 and #1), small and drab (white or black) strike indicators of your choice, dry fly floatant suitable for small and delicate flies
- Special Tools: Your normal fishing tools such as nippers, forceps/barb-mashers, etc. Also throw in a pair of “cheaters” if your eyes aren’t what they once were, since though the flies are bigger than they will be later in the year, spring creek flies are always small.
Flies for Mid-March
I mentioned the basic food items you might expect to use on the spring creeks in March above. The following list covers some specific patterns I like, that cover all the bases.
- Pink Flashtail Micro Egg, #16
- Pink Y2K Egg, #16 (note: this is a nonstandard tie of this “standard” pattern, but it’s an easy one. Simply Google the original fly and tie it small and pink).
- Triple Threat (formerly White River) Floss Worm, #16
- Olive-Dun WD-40, #18
- Olive Willy’s Pip, #20
- Griffith’s Gnat, #18-20
- BWO Sparkledun, #18-20
- Flashback Pheasant Tail, #18-20
- Olive Jujubaetis, #18-20
- Olive BH Woolly Bugger, #6